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Náhuatl Performance: Feasts and Farces of Pre-Colombian Mexico Harley Erdman The Nahuatl-speaking people (commonly caUed Aztec) of Mesoamerica, who lived clustered in a handful of city-states in the VaUey of Mexico, reached an extraordinary level of civüization in the years prior to the Spanish Conquest. Due in good part to the dUigence of a handful of Spanish friars who foUowed the conquistadors into Mexico and to the insight of their many Native American informants, the historian today has access to a wealth of material treating this culture, whose population, it should be noted, numbered well into the rrullions before the Conquest. In the spirit of Richard Schechner's definition, "something planned and designed for presentation" constitutes "a theatrical event" (44), I wül use 16th-century documents in this study, as weU as more recent sources, to reconstrud this complex pre-Colombian performance world, as refleded in the foUowing Náhuatl events: reUgious ceremonies (and their charaderistic music and dance), coronations, tournaments, weddings, banquets, and informal buffooneries. For the Nahuas, as for most peoples, religious ceremonies provided a rich venue for performative activity. Before detaUing these ceremonies, though, it is important to understand something of the role religion played in Náhuatl life. In the years immediately prior to Hernán Cortes's landing in 1519, Náhuatl society was organized under rigidly theocratic Unes with religion permeating most aspects of daily life and culture; the geographical layout of Náhuatl cities makes this clear. In the neighboring cities of Tenochtitlan and Tiatelolco (today, Mexico City), for example, the urban center was dominated by a massive complex of pyramids, plazas, and courtyards, all of which related to ceremonial functions of the Náhuatl religion. A formal hierarchy of intensively -trained scholar-priests, each invested with very specific responsibilities, maintained and regulated the religious practice. This reUgious nexus served an overall urban population that may have exceeded one million inhabitants (Soustelle 9). Modern distinctions between secular and sacred activities are largely irrelevant here; for the Nahuas, religion was the state, the state was religion, and their emperor occupied the mystified position of an embodied god. In honor of the various gods of its wide-ranging pantheon, the Náhuatl state religion featured a range of festivals "so continuous and intertwined that they overlapped ," according to the early chronicler Fray Diego Duran (Book 407). Though each 149 150 HarleyErdman god's festival was unique and feasts in honor of the same god often varied from city to city, the ceremonies tended to feature similar components. Generally, pre-festival solemnities, lasting for hours, days, or even weeks, involved a period of fasting and penitence. The actual day or days of high celebration featured ritualized music, song, and dance, including sacred hymns, led by specially-trained priests and performed by student choruses, themselves rigorously schooled in performance skiUs in exclusive academies (Leo-Portilla 18). Hundreds of dancers pulsated in public squares to the accompaniment of pounding drums. Theatrical enactments featured scenes of gods battling demons, recreations of historical battles, and comic farces. Often dancing proceeded continuously for days and nights. Most of the ceremonies culminated in various types of human sacrifice, often of slaves or captured enemy warriors, to please and appease the god being adored. By most standards, unrelenting brutaUty marked these sacrifices. According to Duran and other early observers, hundreds, even thousands of victims could be sacrificed on a single day throughout the Nahuatlspeaking city-states; see numerous references throughout Duran's Book. The feast of Tezcatlipoca, for example, embodied many of the most dramatic elements of these festivals. As the mythical warrior-god from the south and inventor of fire, Tezcatlipoca had deep associations with primitive magic and was one of the Nahuas' most revered gods. Celebrated on May 19 in Tenochtitlan, the festival began with a morning of adoration, self-flageUation, and animal sacrifice. Later, citizens gathered in the central temple complex to see a young man, representing the angry god, play the flute and mount the steps of the central pyramid where the high priests awaited his imminent sacrifice. Particularly intriguing is that the ceremony's protagonist, rather than being a reludant slave or...


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